Wooly Mittens - Sarah Woodbury

Wooly Mittens

TLP blogMy mother and I quilt, and we were working on some charity quilts, which prompted me to think about what fabric-work was like in the Middle Ages.  When I was writing The Last Pendragon, I wondered about winter hats, since it is cold and snowy in Wales in February.  Knitting,  however, was developed in the Middle East and not brought to Britain until the late thirteenth century.  Even though wool was spun and turned into thread, clothing was woven on looms.   Crochet work was developed later, not until the 1800s.

“The history of knitting is mostly a big mystery, guessed at from fragments kept in museums around the world. Knitting is made of wool, silk, and other fibers that decay rapidly, even under perfect conditions; knitting needles are essentially sharpened sticks, and hard to identify as knitting needles beyond a doubt; they could be hair picks, skewers, spindles, or any of the other zillion uses there are for a sharpened stick. In the past, when spinning was all by hand and much more time-consuming, many sweaters that didn’t fit were raveled and re-knit. Yarn wasn’t discarded until it wore out. Add in that not many people in the past thought to save their everyday items for their descendants, and there aren’t many useful knitted objects left for us to find, all these years later. Once in a while we get lucky. The archeological evidence we have is very interesting, and there are other ways to date things.

Linguistically, all evidence implies that knitting is a fairly recent invention. There are no ancient legends of knitting like there are legends of spinning and weaving (remember Arachne? Ixzaluoh? Nephthys? Amaterasu? Never mind… the numbers of weaving and spinning gods and mostly goddesses are legion). There are no ancient gods or goddesses who knit, no legend of how it was invented or given by the gods. That lack implies that it is a recent skill, developed after mythologies were established around the world. It’s a shame, because I think a knitting goddess would be cool… maybe we could make one up?”  http://www.knitty.com/ISSUEspring06/FEAThistory101.html

Thus, gloves or mittens were made of cloth–either wool or linen.  Both types of hand-covering are ancient, with record of mittens being worn when men still lived in caves, and gloves in ancient Greece and Egypt.

What people did have was ‘nalbinding’, which looks an awful lot like knitting.  “A fine example of the nalbinding/knitting confusion, the famous (notorious?) Dura-Europos fragment is considered by many to be the oldest fragment of knitting in existence. Found in the Indus River Valley and dating back several thousand years, it is listed in many books and the original dig report as knitting (I sincerely wonder if they HAD a knitter on the original dig.) Barbara Walker has even written a pattern so we can all knit something historical. Unfortunately, the Dura-Europos fragment has been proven to be made of nalbinding. Still, the knit version would make a cool pair of socks.”   http://www.knitty.com/ISSUEspring06/FEAThistory101.html  Go to the link because the images are really cool.

“Nalbindning is described as an ancient Scandanavian technique used to produce woollen clothing from lengths of yarn and a single short needle. This method created a tight weave which was suitable for felting and therefore, provided maximum protection from the cold. While this is not considered knitting, it is suggested it may be its precursor and certainly that of crochet-work.

Evidence of the earliest knitting, using two needles, is believed to come from Egypt in the eleventh century, where more knitted socks were found.”  http://www.knit-a-square.com/history-of-knitting.html

Quilting itself (the stitching together of pieces of fabric to make a thicker blanket) is ancient as well, but the piecing and quilting that we did today was developed in America in colonial times, but didn’t find it’s present form (particularly in the creation of scrap quilts) until the late 19th century.

4 Replies to “Wooly Mittens”

  1. Knitting is a craft in which two needles along with thread or yarn are used to create fabric pieces or garments by creating loops in the yarn. Knitting can be used to create many types of fabric, from framed knitting artwork to sweaters, afghan quilts, throws, blankets, mittens, or even bedroom slippers.^:*:

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  2. Gloves could be leather, too, I think. There’s a medieval occupational surname “glover” meaning someone who makes gloves. Shakespeare’s father was a glover, though that’s obviously later in time.

    And it is, by the way, much easier to set a novel during Victorian times when you can write with impunity about quilts and knitting and lace and ice skates and all that sort of thing!

  3. Interesting. Who’s betting that the Victorians started quilting because they got so bored of scrapbooking they had to find a more interesting occupation? 😉

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